S.C. State Ports Authority recruits customers in Upstate

By Bill Poovey
bpoovey@scbiznews.com
Published May 15, 2014

A hush-hush S.C. State Ports Authority conference in Greenville targeting potential customers and developers offered complimentary lodging and meals, 50-cents-per-mile driving reimbursement and up to $500 for air travel. The Site Selector’s Summit (.pdf) started Monday evening with dinner for about 55 attendees, included a S.C. Inland Port tour Tuesday and ended with a Panama Canal discussion just before noon on Wednesday.

Ports Authority External Affairs Manager Matt Tomsic said during the summit that the programs held at the Hyatt Regency were closed to the media. Tomsic and ports authority spokeswoman Erin Pabst declined to even say how many people attended or identify sponsors of the fee-supported agency’s summit, with sponsorships ranging from $2,500 to $10,000. Pabst said the event was aimed at potential ports customers and in an email described it as “essentially a trade conference geared toward economic developers and consultants.”

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“It’s about just highlighting our operation and highlighting South Carolina to people who would be interested in doing business here,” Tomsic said in a telephone interview today.

S.C. Secretary of Commerce Bobby Hitt, who participated in the conference program, said events like the summit benefit the state’s economic development efforts by bringing decision-makers and consultants to the state “so they can see it firsthand and interact with existing businesses that are operating successfully in South Carolina.”

Janet Ady, president and CEO of Voltedge, a Madison, Wis.-based site selection consultant, said after attending that she made numerous good contacts and the summit was “fantastic, just the quantity and quality of people.” She said there were many site selectors and a “lot of employers in the area. Those people were willing to talk to us directly. We kind of had uncensored access to local businesses.” She said event sponsors included utilities in the region.

Ady said economic development conferences paying travel and other costs for those who attend is “very common.”

“People do this all across the country,” she said. They are called “familiarization tours.”

Ady, who is working on an agribusiness project in South Carolina, said she and the other summit attendees visited BMW Manufacturing Co. and the S.C. Inland Port, where they “saw product being moved in and out.” Norfolk Southern is the inland port’s exclusive rail provider and Ady said a rail company representative spoke to the group.

Ady said not allowing the media to attend such economic development conferences is not unusual and beneficial for allowing candid discussions and “to ask our direct questions.”

“We wanted to be able to have a frank discussion and maybe talk about a specific project,” Ady said. “With the ports authority people, I felt like I could really get an honest answer and opinion. Our clients are looking to avoid risk, and we want to see how they are treating people who are there now.”

Tomsic said the summits have been held once or twice a year but this was the first time it was held in Greenville.

“It was unique being up here,” he said.

Tomsic said not allowing media access “gives us all a chance to be candid and have discussions about why South Carolina” and the Port of Charleston and inland port are good for businesses to locate in the state. Tomsic said the ports authority may hold another summit later this year.

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